Islamic Inheritance or al- fara’id, is fundamental to Islamic society. Islamic Inheritance rules are mandatory on all Muslims in the Shari’ah and are widely used through much of the Muslim-Majority world and in countries with large historic Muslim minorities. For a variety of reasons, the concept of the Islamic System of Succession is not very known among American Muslims. This is a guide for American Muslims towards understanding something Muhammad (ﷺ) has said constitutes half of all useful knowledge, the Islamic Law of Inheritance.
Islamic Inheritance in Ordained in the Quran
The Quran says much about succession and related subjects. However, the specific shares of inheritance are 4:11-12 and 4:176 (shares will be discussed below). What brings focus to the importance of these rules comes at 4:10 (immediately before the shares of inheritance are discussed) and 4:13-14. The former verses, state as follows:
These are the limits [set by] Allah, and whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger will be admitted by Him to gardens [in Paradise] under which rivers flow, abiding eternally therein; and that is the great attainment.(4:13)
And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger and transgresses His limits – He will put him into the Fire to abide eternally therein, and he will have a humiliating punishment.(4:14)
So, if you get Allah’s command right, you go to paradise. It is not so good if you disobey Allah. But what does it matter what you do with your wealth? Are there not more important things in the world than inheritance that deserve such severe punishment and reward for good and bad choices?
It is not your wealth
You should understand that it is not your wealth. The Quran states Allah has dominion over everything in the heavens and the earth. This comes up several times in the Quran, including in Ayatul Kursi:
Allah – there is no deity except Him, the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of [all] existence. Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is [presently] before them and what will be after them, and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills. His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth, and their preservation tires Him not. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.
If you are Muslim, you believe that to be true. If you are not, you probably don’t. For a Muslim, how inheritance is distributed after you die acknowledges of your worldly wealth’s true ownership, like everything else, is not your own. You cannot own what you cannot take with you. It is an act of submission to Allah, of worship.
Inheritance as Justice
Abu Hurayrah narrated a hadith of Muhammad (ﷺ) that “A man may do good deeds for seventy years but if he acts unjustly when he leaves his last testament, the wickedness of his deed will be sealed upon him, and he will enter the fire. If (on the other hand), a man acts wickedly for seventy years but is just in his last will, the goodness of his deed will be sealed upon him, and he will enter the garden.” (Ibn Majah)
Islamic Inheritance is not merely about who gets what or how much. Of course, Islamic Inheritance has ordained shares, but the shares are not useful to you because you don’t get them unless you are a beneficiary. You understand that justice comes from Allah. Allah has ruled regarding inheritance a certain way, and you have accepted Islam as your religion. Therefore, you plan based on the Islamic rules of inheritance.
In another well-known hadith, Muhammad (ﷺ) said “It is the duty of a Muslim who has anything to bequest not to let two nights pass without writing a will about it.” (Bukhari)
This article deals with understanding Islamic Inheritance and I hope you finish reading all of it. There is also the matter of implementation, your estate planning. We have a resource guide and a whole lot of relevant information on how you can protect your family in a way that is consistent with YOUR values. Get it for free by clicking here.
What is a married person’s property?
The first part of Islamic Inheritance is more fundamental than who gets what after death: it is what you own during life. This may seem obvious, but it is why perhaps most so-called “Islamic Wills” are often useless. It does no good to say something like “the wife gets 1/8th” without understanding “1/8th of what?” In the United States, people own wealth in a wide range of complicated ways that vary depending on the state, marital status, and type of asset. After that, who gets what after death becomes a math problem. But how you own things will be critical to your Islamic Estate Planning.
Whatever way property is owned, and often regardless of what document type was used to do an Estate Plan, there is a bias in the United States towards giving everything to the surviving spouse. This includes the ownership forms I mentioned above as well as others not discussed. Homes are often owned joint tenancy with right of survivorship, beneficiary designations for retirement and insurance assets tend to benefit the spouse, as do will, living trusts and other devices.
Don’t give it all to your husband or wife
For Muslims, giving everything to the surviving spouse after death when there are other beneficiaries is prohibited, since the Quran mandates other beneficiaries. Unfortunately, though, Muslims do this all the time. While it is assumed the surviving spouse will take care of the children with what she gets, this is not necessarily the case. The survivor may (and if it is a male, will likely quickly) get married. If the survivor also dies, the new spouse may be the beneficiary, accidentally disinheriting the children. The surviving spouse can also be sued or go through a financial calamity such as endure bankruptcy.
Unfortunately, people unwittingly organize assets in a way that causes injustices upon death. Part of Islamic Inheritance is awareness of how you own your wealth.
For more on the process of organizing, you should sign up for our email series on Islamic Estate Planning.
A uniform system of Islamic Inheritance
The Quran requires that Muslims do certain things. For example, prayer, fasting, zakat. However, the Quran does not have much detail about how this is all done. For that, Muslims, particularly scholars, turn to Hadith. While Hadith is relevant in Islamic Inheritance, the Quran has a remarkable level of detail when it comes to distribution of inheritance. The system, of course, has been informed by everything else that forms Islamic Law, so this is not to say that we look at the Quran and nothing else, but the level of detail is remarkable nonetheless.
In Islam, inheritance goes to your son, your daughter, your husband, wife, parents and maybe others. This is not because you like them, you love them, they return your phone calls and so forth. They get inheritance because the Quran ordains they receive the specific inheritance they have a right to. This protects society.
Families fight over inheritance
You see, the United States has a litigious culture. There is not a lot of family trust, loyalty or a reservoir of goodwill that can save families when there is conflict over inheritance. After someone with wealth dies, children often go straight to battle stations. They fight over inheritance, make allegations against one another, someone manipulated dad, mom was crazy and on it goes. Rifts in a family, a place of sanctuary and comfort for Muslims, tear it apart. When families are weaker, societies are weaker. You can see why Islamic Inheritance is so fundamental to who we are what makes our families strong.
Our families are not just a place of biological commonality but in many respects, a sacred space. It is why you will need to make sure that any Estate Plan a Muslim does, must follow the Islamic Rules of Inheritance.
How Inheritance is distributed
In Islam, Inheritance is distributed based on a formula of primary beneficiaries, and contingent beneficiaries. Those terms don’t mean the same thing as they would under state law in the United States though. Primary beneficiaries are your beneficiaries (assuming they are Muslim, more on that below) pretty much no matter what. Now contingent beneficiaries are people who get an inheritance or not depending on the existence or non-existence of individual primary beneficiaries. The shares are from the Quran, specifically verses 4:11-12 and 4:176, hadith, examples from the Sahabah and of course everything else that goes into developing fiqh (which is a whole other subject).
The primary beneficiaries are the spouse, children, and parents. The contingent beneficiaries are a range of people, upstream, downstream and sideways. This may be grandparents, siblings, grandchildren, uncles and aunts and so forth. The specific relationship matters, often in granular detail. A paternal grandfather inherits only if the father is deceased. A brother inherits only if various other individuals never existed or are no longer with us. Some people replace specific other people.
Islamic Inheritance has led to the historical development of math, including algebra. Islamic Inheritance distribution is often a math problem, and as you might expect, calculators are available that can calculate inheritance for you. Here is an example of a calculator you can use to figure out how inheritance is distributed.
Inheritance fixed and variable
The shares of the primary heirs come in two flavors, one is “fixed,” and the other is variable. The reason for the quotes in fixed is that while the shares are typically the same, there are many examples where it is necessary to fit all the heirs in to make the numbers work. The fixed shares are for the spouse and the parents. A surviving husband’s share is either ¼ or ½, depending on if there are children. For the wife, it is either 1/8 or 1/4, again, depending on if there are children. Other fixed shares are 1/6 for the father, and 1/6 for the mother. The rest goes to the children, with two shares for the son for every share for the daughter.
In some cases, say for example if the children are only girls, and the decedent has no father, it may be possible, but not necessarily always the case, that brothers may inherit.
Example of Islamic Inheritance Distribution
Example: At her death, Aisha was married to Haroon and had two sons, Ilyas and Mustafa, and one daughter, Fatima. Her parents, Bilquis and Suhail also survive her. She also has two brothers, Ishaq and Yacoob, and a sister, Sarah. Inheritance from Aisha would be distributed as follows:
Haroon: gets ¼
Ilyas and Mustafa get 1/6 each
Fatima gets 1/12
Bilquis and Suhail get 1/6 each
Her brothers and sister do not inherit at all.
If we change the facts a little though, Say Aisha is not survived by her father but is survived by everyone else I mentioned above. In that instance, the brothers and sister still do not inherit, the husband Haroon and mother Fatima get the same amount as before, but all the children get more. So, the universe of heirs has not increased. The sons then get 7/30, and the daughter gets 7/60. The husband remains at ¼ and the mother at 1/6.
However, as you can see, the various permutations of how inheritance can be distributed can be endless. If we added a paternal grandfather or removed the surviving husband or the sons, the changes would be substantial.
Difference between sons and daughters
One of the best-known rules in the Islamic Rules of Inheritance is that daughters inherit 1/2 the share of a son. This rule makes some Muslims uncomfortable, perhaps with the thought that this is out of date. Understand though that this represents a “right” to inheritance, something that is unknown in the United States. So it is not appropriate to compare. This rule represents a connection between rights and responsibilities in Islam. Men have more duties with their wealth than women do. This can be legally enforcable in classical Islamic Law. You can learn more about this issue here.
Parents get inheritance in Islam. Typically it is 1/6 for the mother and 1/6 for the father, though this can vary in some instances. This is a troublesome issue for some American Muslims. People frankly prefer their children to their parents when it comes to transferring wealth. There is also an assumption that people would want their grandchildren to get more inheritance.
Inheritance goes to a world in which you will not be a part, and the circumstances of the loved ones you will leave behind you will not know. The Quran pre-addresses the objection anyone may have about parents getting an inheritance:
“As for your parents and your children – you know not which of them is more deserving of benefit from you.” (4:11)
Inheritance is the right of the heir that Allah has ordained be the beneficiary of your wealth when you cannot take it with you. It is not your right to decide who gets what after you die. That is part of the deal in being Muslim. Since this is the right of the heir, there is nothing preventing grandparents from giving their inheritance to their grandchildren if they so desired. It is best not to assume this would happen, but it is their choice to do this.
Different Schools of thought
Sometimes, Muslims wonder about differences of opinion in the Islamic laws of inheritance. Some scholars may have said one thing, and other scholars another. There is broad and universal agreement that Islamic inheritance is mandatory and a whole lot beyond this. Differences of opinion may matter in certain circumstances. However, for the clear majority of Muslim families, all schools of thought (especially Sunni schools of thought) all point in the same direction. Where there may be differences of opinion may concern a minority of cases.
There are however meaningful differences of opinion when it comes to Shia understanding of the Islamic rules of Inheritance. In a calculation of inheritance, wider distribution to male heirs is less likely, and the Wasiyyah, which I will discuss below, can be used for beneficiaries of right.
Non-Muslims Family Members
When we discuss inheritance, keep in mind that we are talking about “inheritance by right.” Not everything that passes from one generation to another, or is bequeathed by a testator (the person writing the last will or living trust), is inheritance by right. There are three parts to what gets distributed after death. The first is expenses and debts (which are not the same thing but I am combining them for simplicity). The second is the Wasiyyah, discussed in more detail below. Lastly we have the fara’id, which is Islamic inheritance distribution.
There is a hadith of Muhammad (ﷺ) , “A Muslim cannot be the heir of a disbeliever, nor can a disbeliever be the heir of a Muslim.” Many Muslims, particularly in the United States, have family members who are not Muslims. This concern happens with converts to Islam and those with parents and even children or a spouse that is not a Muslim, or they may have a family member who has left Islam. None of these individuals will inherit by right under Islamic Inheritance. They may, however be beneficiaries of the wasiyyah. This may not be true of those who have left Islam. That is the 1/3 discretionary allotment that you can give (discussed below).
There is also the potential for giving gifts during your lifetime, which can be structured in various ways but cannot be something that you give away after death since that’s inheritance, governed by those rules.
What about receiving from non-Muslims?
The other question that sometimes comes up is what about inheritance from a non-Muslim family member? In the United States, there is no similar system of inheritance to what Muslims have in Islam, where many people have a right to inheritance. There is no problem with being a beneficiary of a non-Muslim relative who wishes to name you, at their discretion, into their estate plan.
Disinheritance of beneficiaries
Allah has ordained inheritance in the Quran. You do not have the authority, as a believing Muslim, to disregard it. Doing so would mean you are doing an injustice.
Idrees is a Muslim who has three adult children. He has not spoken to them in 10 years after a rough divorce with their mother. He wants to disinherit his children. Instead, he wants to give everything to the Masjid.
Idrees cannot do this in Islam. Even though giving money to the Masjid, by itself, is beneficial, he cannot do this for more than 1/3 of his estate. The rest must go to his rightful heirs in Islam. Failure to do this would make him unjust. Also, he and his children should make efforts to communicate. Muslims should also never cut off family ties.
Islam does not prohibit adoption. However, this comes with a caveat. Adoption is a legal fiction. You cannot make your adopted child the same as your biological child for all purposes.
The issue of adoption is specifically mentioned in the Quran at 33:4-5:
Adopted children are not true children, and you call people by the names of their true fathers. Muslims can give adopted children wealth from the wasiyyah. However, they cannot treat the child as exactly the same as a biological child for all purposes. In the United States, the legal fiction of adoption has wide implications. Those should be controlled in an Islamic Estate Plan.
What if adoptive parents want to give more than what they can give in the wasiyyah? Consider structuring a gift in a way that does not violate the Islamic Rules of Inheritance.
What is a Wasiyyah?
The wasiyyah is often a term that many Muslims confuse with a “last will.”- they are not the same thing at all, at least in the United States. In Islam, the wasiyyah refers to a 1/3 (or less) bequest that a Muslim can give after death. A wasiyyah can go to charity or relatives who are not otherwise heirs under the Islamic Rules of Inheritance.
Example: Isa wants to give 20% of his wealth to his Masjid after he dies. This is a wasiyyah. The rest of his wealth will pass per Islamic Inheritance percentages.
Don’t forget Debt
It is vital to pay off debts after death before any distribution of inheritance. Debt is a complex subject in Estate Planning and among families and businesses. Unfortunately, many Muslim families do a poor job of keeping track of what debts they owe and what debts are owed. A strong recommendation in the Quran to write down debts is often not followed.
O you who have believed, when you contract a debt for a specified term, write it down.
Most of the time, not writing down every debt in the family is not a big deal. However, when it comes to relationships after death, the presence of debt can be toxic to relationships. This is more often true if the arrangement is not clear to the survivors.
With some exceptions, Islam does not regulate gifts that you give during your lifetime. So, for example, if you want to give a gift to your child, even if non-Muslim or otherwise not eligible to inherit, a friend, a spouse, you can do so. While this may seem simple enough, this can allow for some opportunities for structuring gifts in estate plans. Some Muslims may transfer ownership in business entities, real estate, and other assets.
A Muslim’s ability to give gifts does have restrictions. The concept of “final sickness” is one of them. For example, an elderly man on his deathbed gives away everything he owns to his nurse. People sometimes do wacky things on their deathbeds. Another prohibition is that Muslims cannot give gifts with the intent of injuring the Islamic inheritance rights of another individual.
How other countries handle Islamic Inheritance
Many countries have mixed legal systems where the rules will be different depending on religion. This is the case with most majority Muslim and some majority non-Muslim countries. The default system of succession for Muslim families is the Islamic Rules of inheritance.
When such a system exists, for the most part, Muslim families do not need to worry about Islamic Estate Planning. Note though that some Muslim-majority countries have underdeveloped legal systems. It is also common for Muslim men to cheat female family members of inheritance. So, the mere fact that shari’ah is the default system does not mean the system is wonderful. Many American Muslims with family in Muslim-majority countries can attest to this.
Other systems use a civil code to decide on inheritance. In such systems, unlike the US, there is no free alienation of property. So you cannot get Islamic distribution of your estate if you wanted to. It would be against the law. Much of Europe is like that. If you live in the United States, you are fortunate that you can organize your affairs consistent with the Islamic Rules of Inheritance.
How we plan in the United States
Muslims may plan inheritance consistent with the Islamic Rules of Inheritance everywhere in the United States. The US system is “free alienation of property.” You can give away whatever you want to whoever you like (in general), and it is not the government’s place to tell you what to do with your wealth, other than taxing it.
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